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BJP has NISHAD party support in Yogi’s Gorakhpur, but the Nishads may not vote for it

The Nishads, a community of boatmen, account for 18% of Gorakhpur voters and were key to BJP's defeat in 2018 bypoll. But this time, they are in alliance.

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Gorakhpur: A year ago, the Yogi Adityanath bastion of Gorakhpur slipped out of the BJP’s hands after nearly three decades, with the consolidation of backward and Scheduled Caste votes in the 2018 Uttar Pradesh by-election.

The key to this defeat were the Nishads, a community of boatmen, who account for 18 per cent (4 lakh) of the constituency’s voters.

And this time again, as Gorakhpur prepares to cast its vote in the final phase of the Lok Sabha election on 19 May, it is the changing political loyalties of the Nishad community that lie at the heart of local electoral speculation.

The Nishad factor

It was the NISHAD party, or the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal, that effected the BJP’s defeat in 2018. In 2019, the two outfits have joined hands.

Last year, NISHAD party chief Sanjay Nishad’s son Praveen Kumar Nishad contested the by-election on a Samajwadi Party (SP) ticket — with Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) support — and wrested Gorakhpur from the BJP by a margin of around 20,000 votes.

In March this year, however, the NISHAD party broke their alliance with the SP, citing concerns over seat-sharing and the absence of their party’s name from the SP-BSP coalition’s publicity material.

The SP was quick to react, and the coalition soon declared former state minister Rambhuwal Nishad of the BSP as its Gorakhpur candidate.

Rambhuwal is in the fray against the BJP’s Ravi Kishan Shukla, a Bhojpuri film star, and Congress leader Madhusudhan Tripathi.

Missing from this contest are the architects of the 2018 upset, with Praveen now in the running from Sant Kabir Nagar.

“Since we fielded a Nishad candidate from Gorakhpur, the BJP could not give a ticket to a member of the NISHAD party, fearing a division of Nishad votes,” said a senior SP leader.

“Praveen Kumar Nishad, thus, had to be fielded from Sant Kabir Nagar, which also has substantial Nishad votes,” said a senior SP leader.

Also read: Why BJP picked Bhojpuri superstar Ravi Kishan to win back Yogi Adityanath’s Gorakhpur

‘Lost all credibility’

The significance of Nishads as a vote-bank in Uttar Pradesh may be derived from a key state government project estimated to cost Rs 94 crore.

Last year, the Yogi Adityanath government announced that when it builds a Ram statue near Prayagraj, it will construct another one next to it — of Nishadraj, a boatman and a Nishad community icon who is believed to have helped Ram cross the Ganga.

However, despite having the support of the NISHAD party, local residents say, the BJP faces a tough run from Gorakhpur, partly because of disillusionment with the latter, and partly because of its choice of candidate — some locals told ThePrint that their vote for the BJP in earlier elections was not so much a vote for the party as it was for Adityanath.

“They [NISHAD party] have lost all credibility in the community. Through this shifting of allegiance, they have shown to us that their greed for power is more important than representing our community,” said Harishchand Nishad, a voter from Pipraich.

“The contest here is between the cycle (SP) and phool (flower, BJP) but the SP’s Nishad candidate is in the lead,” added Raghubhar, a vegetable seller at Bardahi Kotan Tola village in the Pipraich assembly segment.

“The Congress has no hold here, although the Congress candidate, a Brahmin, can divide Brahmin votes in the region (Ravi Kishan is a Brahmin),” he said.

Describing the disenchantment with the BJP, Raghubhar added that he was still waiting to receive benefits under the showcase schemes launched by the government — toilets, housing, LPG supply, and the cash grant under the PM KISAN scheme.

Influence of Gorakhnath temple and Yogi Adityanath

In the heart of Gorakhpur stands the Gorakhnath temple, where Yogi Adityanath, who has won five parliamentary elections from the seat since 1998, serves as mahant or head priest.

In the bustling market that surrounds this temple, most shop owners are Muslims, who comprise the next dominant voter group in the constituency.

At a garment store a short distance from the the temple gate, the Muslim owner described Ravi Kishan, who contested and lost the 2014 election from Jaunpur, as an outsider and a “Bombay voter”. Only Adityanath can “present the Gorakhpur seat to the BJP”, he added.

“Our votes used to go to Adityanath because of his efficiency as an administrator,” he said.

“As MP and mahant, he developed this entire market area, widened roads in the city and has been a grievance redressal point for all of us…His image of a Hindu leader at loggerheads with Muslims has been created on stage, just for political purposes,” the store owner added.

“I have seen several such politicians who say things about one community on stage but, once off the stage, they sit and eat together,” he added.

As stated earlier, such sentiments about Adityanath and the temple are shared by some Nishad voters as well. “We used to give votes not to the BJP but to Adityanath, because of the mandir (Gorakhnath peeth). It is a question of faith. If mahantji (Adityanath) is fielded today, we will vote for him,” said Harishchand, a local.

Meanwhile, BJP leaders from the area feel that it is this faith in Adityanath and the work done by him that will ensure the BJP’s victory in Gorakhpur this time.

“People have faith in Yogi and the development of Gorakhpur under him,” said Satyendra Singh, a BJP leader from Gorakhpur. “The by-election was won on a caste arithmetic but that is not going to work this time.”

Also read: With Yogi as CM, his Hindu Yuva Vahini has all but disappeared from Gorakhpur


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